Why are ashes used on Ash Wednesday?

Ash Wednesday, which marks the beginning of the Lenten season, takes its name from the liturgy of the day wherein the ashes are blessed and then marked on the foreheads of the faithful in the form of a cross.

Mentioned over 40 times in the Old Testament, ashes were also used as a sign of repentance. People would sit in ashes, roll around in them, sprinkle them upon their heads, or even mingle them with their food and drink. They did this as an outward sign of their inward posture of repentance.

Imitating these Biblical rituals of penance, the early Christians practiced public penance till the 11th Century. Since then we are left with just a customary marking of ashes on our forehead as sign that marks the beginning of Lent

Though less known, ashes were also used in other Catholic liturgies like the ceremonies for the dedication of a church and the consecration of altars. Ashes, according to ancient symbolism in the scriptures, were used to signify “sorrow” (Job 2:8; Jonah 3:6), grief and penance (Mt 11:21), “worthlessness” (Job 30:19; Sir. 40: 3), or a sign of affliction (Ps. 102:10).

The ashes used on ash Wednesday are obtained from the palm branches which were blessed on Palm Sunday the previous year. These are burned a day before Ash Wednesday, on Shrove Tuesday and then blessed during the liturgical service on Ash Wednesday. When palm branches are not available, other suitable material, such as dried branches or leaves, may be substituted.

After the Gospel and the homily is delivered, the priest dips his right thumb in the bowl of ashes and makes the sign of the cross on each person’s forehead saying the accompanying words, “Remember you are dust and unto dust you shall return.” or a variation on those words. Other formulas may be used such as “repent and believe in the Gospel”. By receiving ashes and keeping them on, we publicly proclaim our intent to die to our worldly desires and live even more in Christ’s image.

There is nothing magical in the ash used on ash Wednesday. Ashes are merely an outward expression of our desire to turn to God and turn away from sin; a time when we stop and assess how we are doing in our walk with God. We mark ourselves with ashes as a ‘new beginning’ at the onset of Lent, allowing the life of Jesus Christ to make us whole and new again. Put simply, God is crazy about us, he loves us and desires to forgive us. On Ash Wednesday he once again gives this sinner a second chance. Put simply: God kicks ash.

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